The gathering of delegates in New York last week for the latest and likely futile installment of climate talks at the United Nations prompted a new round of familiar questions: Why have the governments of the world so far been unable to stem climate change? Why can’t the global community agree to halt the sharp rise in both carbon emissions and global temperatures?
Climate change debates are a maelstrom, and Naomi Klein has added to that fray with her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She has a sharp, pungent answer to why no concerted action has taken place: “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find our way out of this crisis.” With meticulous research and reporting, Klein documents how some corporations and lobbying groups have thwarted action and even manipulated multiple governments into boosting the extraction of gas, coal, and oil.
The causal link between human actions and tumultuous climate shifts is beyond question, as is our collective failure to halt climate change. But Klein’s answers—as compelling as they may be to many—fall quite short. Because she is such a powerful voice in this discussion, her rhetoric risks obscuring just how much is being done by large companies around the world to reduce their carbon emissions and environmental footprint.
In fact, capitalism—in the form of multinational corporations—is doing more than many governments and multilateral institutions to stem the progression of climate change. They are doing so because of self-interest, not altruism; the relentless demand for profit is compelling an increasing percentage of the world’s largest companies to take concerted, forceful action. Yes, many companies remain obstacles to action, as Klein argues, but increasingly, more are becoming the agents of rapid and necessary change.
Every day, for instance, Joel Makower and his news site Greenbiz document the initiatives launched by companies around the world. This week alone, the site focused on Walmart’s continuing global efforts to approach zero emissions; Veolia’s (a French water-supply company) ongoing work to raise water and infrastructure efficiency in cities around the world; and Caesars Entertainment’s project to cut down on its water usage in Las Vegas.
For Klein, these sorts of efforts amount largely to greenwashing. She sees them almost entirely as forms of corporate marketing and deft lobbying that have in turn corrupted large environmental NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. And because carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise and rise, she argues that whatever is being done by companies in cahoots with compromised NGOs clearly isn’t working.
But even if a company is hungry for profit and power—and what successful company isn’t?—that should not disqualify their efforts to address climate change. Take the endeavor recently announced at the Clinton Global Initiative by Sir Richard Branson to tackle trucking efficiency throughout the world. Branson is a particular focus of Klein’s critique, as a poseur capitalist who presents himself as a green apostle while making billions on carbon-intensive industries such as air travel. Yet Branson’s commitment to reducing Virgin’s carbon footprint seems just as genuine as any climate marcher who drove a car to get to Manhattan for the People’s Climate March. We all are forced into carbon complicity, whether as individuals or as corporations.
Then there are the multi-year campaigns by global behemoths such as Unilever, Marks & Spencer (with its “Plan A” in the U.K.), UPS around the world, Maersk shipping lines, Nike, Coca-Cola, and swaths of other companies that have made sustainability and energy-efficiency central to their business models. Klein might dismiss these efforts in general, but Maersk’s innovations around slow shipping, for instance, are about the only thing standing between it and financial insolvency. Its urgency to make money led to double-digit reductions in the amount of fuel its ships consume—and given that Maersk controls more than 15 percent of the global container fleet, that reduction is meaningful. So too are the efforts of UPS to upgrade its trucks to hybrids, electric, and other less fuel-intensive options.
Klein is dead-on in her litany of the failures of European carbon trading; she is certainly justified in decrying most government efforts to combat climate change as shams. But she misses the substantial contributions of companies to a radical reduction in energy consumption over the past five years. As Dan Gross has been vigorously reporting in Slate, multiple communities in the U.S. have been slashing energy use and emissions, often in partnership with large companies such as Ford Motors. U.S greenhouse gas emissions have decreased 10 percent since 2005, and the bulk of that came after 2008, even with a slight rise in 2013. Some of the decrease was probably due to shrunken output because of the 2008-09 recession and financial crisis, but much of it is down to a private-enterprise drive for profit, which in turns drives the lowering of costs and of consumption of raw materials.
Of course, global emissions have continued to increase rapidly. The major cause is the explosive growth of China and portions of what we still call the “developing world.” Emissions are rising not because of Washington lobbyists pursuing the imperatives of the 1 percent, but due to the rapid and unregulated growth of billions of new entrants into a global middle class. That phenomenon may serve the interests of many multinationals, but it is also serving the needs and ambitions of huge portions of humanity that watched from the sidelines of the 20th century as the western world aggregated the preponderance of the world’s affluence. India’s environment minister has flatly stated that his government would focus on alleviating poverty regardless of whether or not it meant sharply rising emissions. Perhaps he is in thrall to multinationals, but perhaps he is answering the demands of hundreds of millions of people to live better now.
None of us should lose sight of working toward a less resource-intensive future. Getting there requires massive investment of trillions of dollars and concerted effort at multiple levels of society. Dismissing a key element of that change—the multinationals and global NGOs that are trying to make these changes in spite of the sclerosis and opposition of so many governments and in the face of powerful lobbies—may galvanize some activists. But barring a synchronous overthrow of the entire global capitalist system, we need the assiduous efforts of multinationals that simultaneously strive to make heaps of money and to reduce their environmental impact. Without them, we would be many steps closer to the environmental Armageddon that Klein and so many of us fear is nigh.